In 2015, during an escalation of violence in Jerusalem, a just-turned-teenage Palestinian boy and his older cousin were involved in a stabbing that left two young Israelis injured – critically in the case of one, a 13-year-old boy. The elder cousin, Hassan, was shot dead by police. The younger, Ahmad, was hit by a car and lay bleeding on the ground as a crowd gathered. They shouted: “Die you motherfucker” and urged police to “put a bullet in his head”. The shockingly young ages of the boys sent the story around the world. For Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians, it led to one of the most fraught conflicts of her decades-long career.

Advocate, an award-winning documentary by Israeli film-makers Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, chronicles the 75-year-old lawyer’s life and work. The film provides a compelling insight into the uneasy complexities of representing Palestinians in Israeli courts, where the occupiers effectively judge the occupied in a system that can’t escape the bloody conflict raging between the two sides.

Early in the film, as the camera sweeps along the rows of battered files that crowd Tsemel’s office, we see the nature of her work spelled out in their headings: possession of a weapon, stone throwing, accessory to murder, suicide bombings. It’s a life spent losing inside courtrooms and facing attacks outside them.

The film contains footage of a TV interview with Tsemel in the 1990s, in which she discusses what drives her to defend Palestinians. The presenter says to her: “It’s as if you identify with them!” They also tally all the verbal attacks the lawyer has faced: traitor, leftist, devil’s advocate. At one point the presenter says: “I think that terrorists are no different to rapists and murderers.” Tsemel replies that, instead of “terrorists”, other people in the world might call some Palestinians “freedom fighters”.

To protect the identity of defendants, the film sometimes uses animated images projected on to legal and press archives – the background documents reminding us that this story cannot be separated from a historical and political context. In one animated sequence, Ahmad passes round a packet of sweets outside the courtroom at his father’s request. His teenage awkwardness seems familiar and at the same time completely at odds with his involvement in the conflict.

Although the film is interspersed with footage spanning Tsemel’s legal career, Advocate focuses on two defendants: Ahmad, and a Palestinian woman called Israa Jaabis who injured a policeman and severely burned herself after setting fire to her car, which was loaded with gas canisters. Israeli officials deemed this a botched suicide bombing. Given the woman’s previous attempts to take her own life, Tsemel wonders at one point if the intent was “suicide by cop”.

Adding to the tensions throughout this well-paced documentary is the media spotlight on both cases, Ahmad’s in particular. We see his case deployed in a battle over political narratives between Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, as well as the sometimes sensationalist interpretations ascribed by the journalists covering it. Tsemel comes out of grim hearings to give polished media interviews and explain the moral and legal ramifications.

Born in 1945 to parents from Belarus and Poland, Tsemel was studying law in Jerusalem in 1967, when the six-day war concluded with Israel capturing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, among other territories. Soon after, she saw lines of fleeing Palestinians and felt the parallels with Jewish exile and her own family’s history. As she explains in the film, she was reluctantly drawn to left-wing politics, which for her answered the questions demanded by the unfolding situation.

Although she has known Tsemel for decades, it didn’t occur to Jones to make a film about her. “Often we overlook the things closest to us,” she says of Advocate, her fourth documentary. It was co-director Bellaiche who first envisaged it. “The day he met Tsemel, he said, ‘Someone has to make a film about her.’ I said, ‘Someone will.’ Fifteen years later, we looked at each other and realised, ‘Well, that someone is us.’”

Advocate has bagged several awards and was shortlisted – though not nominated – for this year’s Oscars. In 2019, the film infuriated Israel’s right-wing Im Tirtzu organisation, as well as a group representing Israelis who have lost family members in terror attacks, after it won the country’s prestigious DocAviv award. Culture minister Miri Regev slammed this decision, calling Advocate’s presentation of Tsemel’s work “outrageous and deserving of condemnation”. Regev pushed to cancel screenings and said the national lottery, which funds the award, should withdraw its prize money.

Who is ready to go against the grain, swim against the current, speak truth to power?

But Israel’s arts community pushed back, staging demonstrations, pulling out of awards and returning other prizes in protest. “The national lottery belongs to everyone,” says Amit Goren, CEO of the Makor Foundation for Israeli films. Regev has also attacked the award-winning Israeli film Foxtrot for its depiction of Israeli soldiers and proposed a “loyalty in culture” bill for arts funding (which was later postponed). Pointing to Makor’s pluralistic mission for films across the political spectrum, Goren says: “We are in an absurd situation. A politician who is supposed to represent all of us is representing a very narrow political vision.”

Advocate has enjoyed extended runs to sell-out audiences in Israel, perhaps suggesting the film gives voice to a growing desire among liberals to reclaim some political space. “Lea touched that nerve, she made it possible. It was fantastic and I would never have foreseen that,” says Jones, whom I have known for over a decade, having first met to discuss one of her earlier films, Ashkenaz, which explored notions of identity in Israel.

Tsemel tells me that, despite the attacks on social media, she is greeted positively on Jerusalem’s streets. “Just the other day, a young guy shouted in the market, ‘Lea, you are my Oscar!’ People who don’t think like me, who can’t stand my ideology, tell me to carry on.” The film’s spotlight on a fight for progressive values seems welcome at a time of populist right resurgence around the world. “What Lea represents hits home,” says Jones. “The question is: who is ready to go against the grain, swim against the current and speak truth to power?”

Although focused on court verdicts, Advocate offers no definitive judgments, least of all on Tsemel. This tireless lawyer is portrayed as principled but demanding, sparkling but also snappish. The cost of a career so at odds with mainstream Israeli society is sensitively navigated in interviews with Tsemel’s husband, the leftist activist Michel Warschawski, and their two children, neither of whom pretends that the pride they feel today was easily reached. “It’s rare to see women like her, who do their thing unapologetically,” says her daughter, Talila. “I’m willing to pay the price for there to be room for a woman like that to exist.”

One archival scene shows Tsemel celebrating a rare victory in an appeal to the supreme court in 1999, making it illegal for Israel’s security services to use torture during interrogations. Interviewed in the film, Avigdor Feldman, one of the team of winning lawyers, now says that the landmark ruling has been eroded. What, he is asked, is justice? “I don’t know, since I don’t believe in justice,” he replies, explaining that because in trials involving Palestinians, “the balance of power is a priori unequal, a fair chance is never given”. Tsemel still believes in it, he adds, which is how she can keep fighting for her clients.

Shortly after Advocate’s world premiere last year, her Palestinian co-council Tareq Barghout, who features in the film, was arrested over involvement in shooting attacks in the West Bank. She represented Barghout, who was sentenced to 13 years. It is a coda to a bleak story with no winners, yet audiences have found hope in Tsemel, who calls herself an “angry optimistic woman” in the film.

Success, she says, is not always defined in terms of wins and losses but rather in the spaces in between: the capacity to reduce a sentence, stop a deportation, prevent a family separation. “The important thing is not to despair of losing so often, but to try and try again,” she says. Repeated defeat doesn’t seem to dent her resilience. “On the contrary, it gives me more ambition – this time, I’m going to do it.”

Advocate: A Lawyer Without Borders will be shown on BBC Four on 10 February at 9pm.

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